Location: Tbilisi, Georgia
Parties involved: Georgia’s parliament, Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, rights groups, Georgian civilians, Russia, European Union
On 07/03/2023, protests erupted in Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi. Thousands of protesters gathered outside the parliament building, where politicians had just passed the first reading of a draft law despite heavy criticism domestically and abroad. The law would require any organization that receives more than 20% of its funding from abroad to register as a “foreign agent,” which could have negative effects on the image of foreign-funded companies, NGOs and media outlets. According to the protesters and rights groups, this draft law cuts back on basic freedom rights and represents an authoritarian shift in Georgia.
Protesters also fear that the law would halt Georgia’s ambition to join the EU - which is held by over 80% of Georgia’s population, according to the BBC. The EU issued a statement on 07/03/2023 that the law would be “incompatible with EU values and standards” and could have “serious repercussions on our relations.” Protesters demonstrated their EU-ambition by waving EU flags.
The protests turned violent as protesters threw stones and petrol bombs to security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.
Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili openly supports the protesters and claims that she will veto the law. However, due to constitutional reforms in the past decade, the role of the President is nowadays merely ceremonial, which means that the parliament could overcome the presidential veto.
On 08/03/2023, protesters gathered in front of the parliament building, and again the protest turned violent.
On 09/03/2023, the Georgian parliament led by the Georgian Dream party announced that it will revoke the draft law. However, the party also stated that it will attempt to clarify the importance of the law after the protests have calmed down. It is thus likely that the parliament will try to install the draft law again in the (near) future. The main demand of the protesters as of 09/03/2023 is that the Georgian ruling party will formally denounce the law.
Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the relationship between Russia and Georgia has been tense since. At the center of this dispute are the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which seceded Georgia in the 1990s with the backing of Russian forces.
In August 2008, Russian forces occupied the breakaway regions, marking the start of the Russo-Georgian War. The war was fought between Georgian forces on one side, and Russian forces and the forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other. The war led to the deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations, as Russia established military bases in the regions and formally recognized the breakaway states. In 2016, Georgia recognized Abkhazia as an autonomous state, but not South Ossetia.
Another crucial factor for the tense relationship is the Georgian bid for NATO and EU membership, a course Georgia has been pursuing since the 2003 “Rose Revolution”. The majority of the Georgian population is in favor of joining the EU.
In March 2022, Georgia applied for EU membership. In June of the same year, the EU said it was ready to grant Georgia the status of membership country. The “foreign agents” draft law might jeopardize this process of joining the EU, as the statement by the EU on 07/03/2023 shows.
Over the past 18 months, Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream has made moves into illiberal direction, away from the EU. It is likely that this shift has aggrieved pro-European civilians over the past months, and led to the eruption of protests in March. However, Georgian Dream openly denies that the draft law signifies a shift towards Russia and away from the EU.
In 2012, Russia passed a law that is similar to this “foreign agents” law in order to suppress Western-funded NGOs and media. The Georgian Dream party emphasizes that the Georgian “foreign agents” law does not resemble the Russian law.
Georgia has experienced more large-scale protests in the past. In 2019, thousands of people protested outside the parliament building against the presence of Sergei Gavrilov, a communist party member of the Russian Duma, who delivered a speech about the Orthodox brotherhood of Georgia and Russia. The government forces brutally cracked down on the protest, which aggrieved the protesters even more. 240 people were injured during the protests, of which 80 were policemen.
Dyami’s 2020 article on Georgia contains more information on the background of the country.
Analysis and implications:
The events in Georgia resemble the recent events in Moldova, on which Dyami published two intelligence briefings in February and March. Both countries are in the vicinity of Russia and have pro-Russian breakaway regions with Russian military presence. Both countries are in the process of becoming a (candidate) member of the EU. Both countries have recently experienced protests, however Moldova’s protests were of pro-Russian nature whereas Georgia’s protests were of pro-EU and ani-Russian nature. The pro-Russian protests in Moldova were allegedly fuelled by Russia, as part of the hybrid warfare campaign against Moldova. Russia aims to block Moldova’s move towards EU-membership, and it is likely that Russia has a similar interest in Georgia.
The recent protest in Georgia resembles anti-Russian sentiment that has been spreading among countries close to Russia. As the geopolitical stage is transforming into a two-block-sphere (Russia and ‘the West’), it is then in the interest of Russia to prevent its neighboring countries from joining the block of the West. Russia might attempt to prevent Georgia from joining the Western block through hybrid warfare/ influence on the Georgian Dream party, as mentioned above.
The Georgian Dream party will have to make concrete moves to adhere to EU values and standards in order to be accepted as a member of the EU. At the moment, the draft law does not meet these requirements. It is therefore unlikely that pro-EU Georgian civilians will change their stance on the law once its importance is clarified. Tensions may escalate further if Georgian Dream continues to steer the country’s politics away from the European Union and it is unlikely that the current protesters will settle for anything less than a permanent revocation of the draft law.
The majority of the Georgian population remains in favor of EU membership and people have protested before against the Russia-leaning ruling party. Voting in favor of the ‘foreign agents’ law, the parliament’s put in jeopardy Georgia’s bid to EU membership and caused protests to erupt in Tbilisi. The tension between the government and the civilians is therefore likely to remain –or escalate– as long as Georgian Dream party does not take concrete actions to push the country toward EU membership.
For more in-depth Sitreps, analyses, or bespoke advice on the aviation security and safety concerns regarding this region, or other areas across the globe, please contact Dyami at+31 30 207 2120 or through our webpage.